On Trident, party politics trumps international treaty obligations

The Conservatives have played on the idea that nuclear disarmament is emasculating and weak


For the past five years the UK General Election has coincided with the quinquennial Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). The conference gathers its 191 members at the UN in New York to discuss progress on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, and agree steps for the next five years.

At the last Review Conference in 2010 a 64-point Action Plan was agreed by consensus. This included a commitment ‘to further diminish the role and significance of nuclear weapons in all military and security concepts, doctrines and policies’.

Once again, however, there is deep disquiet at the Review Conference – due to end on 22 May – about the lack of progress on nuclear disarmament and the continued modernisation and veneration of nuclear weapons in nuclear-armed states.

What’s at stake here is not so much further incremental cuts in nuclear forces, though these are welcome and necessary, but concrete actions to step back from the practice of nuclear deterrence.

In the UK, however, we see the opposite. Throughout the election campaign we saw the Westminster parties eulogise nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence as they competed for votes. We saw nuclear weapons heaped with symbolic meanings as our politicians competed to show that they were the most committed to retaining UK nuclear weapons for another generation at considerable expense and opportunity cost.

We saw Labour and the Conservatives lock themselves in a performative nuclear dance in which each tried to outdo the other’s patriotic commitment to ‘national security’ and protection of the citizenry through continued deployment of weapons of mass destruction. Yet ‘national security’ in the round was absent as an electoral issue. There was little mainstream debate on Russia, ‘Islamic State’, energy security or climate change, for example.

The political context was the legacy of the Scottish independence referendum last September that cast a long shadow over the election. The resurgent Scottish National Party were vilified in Westminster as socialist Trident rejectionists and would-be Union wreckers.

Labour remains internally deeply divided on Trident. But it was forced to commit to full Trident replacement come what may and to denounce even talking to the SNP, by a sustained Conservative attack that conflated rethinking Trident under a Labour administration with breaking up the Union by relying on the SNP in a hung parliament.

The Conservatives accused Labour of wanting to sell out ‘national security’ by trading Trident for SNP support to get the keys to No. 10. Here, the Conservatives played the ‘strong on defence’ card favoured by right-leaning parties that frames disarmament as emasculation and ‘weakness’.

It is a narrative that says our national protection and security through the threat of colossal nuclear disaster is unquestioningly necessary and acceptable. It insists that a global security system of nuclear haves and have-nots is somehow permanently sustainable, deaf to the global voices of dissent massed at the NPT Review Conference.

So we have seen the theatre of nuclear politics playing out simultaneously in two arenas: at the international diplomatic level in the month-long NPT Review Conference and the domestic parochial level in the six-week election campaign.

What is clear, however, is that local nuclear party politics trumps international treaty obligations. Why is this? The answer lies in a political culture of ‘nuclearism’ – the almost naturalised belief that nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence are an inevitable, necessary and enduring component of major power relations, an unquestioned solution to national security threats, and part of what makes Britain ‘great’.

It is a ‘regime of nuclear truth’ that is embedded in our political culture, one that assigns powerful values to nuclear weapons, including electoral value. The British culture of nuclearism has been vigorously challenged over the past decade as sceptics and critics have explored ways and means of weaning the body politic off its reliance on nuclear weapons, but the roots of nuclearism run deep.

A major problem, for the UK at least, is that it is seen as perfectly legitimate to value nuclear weapons as highly-prized assets. Part of this legitimacy comes from the NPT that recognised the UK along with the USSR, USA, France and China as ‘nuclear weapon states’ in 1968 because they had exploded a nuclear device prior to the treaty’s negotiation. This legal status as a nuclear weapon state is routinely translated into a language of permanent entitlement, legal rights, and international political legitimacy.

A new international legal instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons for all states – a ‘nuclear ban treaty’ proposed by many governments at the Vienna International Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons in December 2014 – would strip UK nuclear weapons of their veneer of legitimacy and substantially diminish the domestic political values assigned to these weapons.

Such a shift in the international normative context of nuclear weapons would begin to wither the roots of cultural nuclearism in the UK. In the meantime, the party politics of nuclear electioneering in the UK and the diplomatic games of global nuclear order in New York seem to operate in entirely different worlds.

Nick Ritchie researches and teaches in the areas of international relations and international security at the University of York. Follow him on Twitter

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5 Responses to “On Trident, party politics trumps international treaty obligations”

  1. stevep

    To even think that nuclear weapons are a deterrent, let alone a first-strike weapon is a form of madness. Any form of even small or medium scale nuclear exchange would leave large parts of the planet destroyed and uninhabitable for decades, even centuries to come, let alone the human cost.
    Why is it, as human beings, we think the cost as taxpayers of funding weapons of mass destruction is acceptable, even necessary, and yet we denigrate spending money on better health care provision, better services, easier working lives, pensions, happiness, policies that will create a fairer society etc. etc. It makes me want to tear my hair out in rage and cry from the rooftops “WHY ARE WE SUCH FOOLS!”

  2. Tony

    Labour could have challenged the Conservatives’ lies but chose not to. If it votes with the Conservatives to support Trident replacement, then I think it risks extinction in Scotland. It won’t help in England either as some of its voters will switch to the Greens.

    But it is important to remember that many people in the Labour Party like nuclear weapons and want to retain them permanently.

  3. Ian Turnbull

    Thanks, this account neatly summarises the situation and balance of political opinion in the UK. I like the reference to sceptics and critics exploring ways to wean the body politic off its fanciful reliance on nuclear weapons. I’m part of this group, but busy with pointing more to the universal nature of the Atomic World, which requires us to then
    invest in the metaphysics of the atom, more than the physics.

    It is basically lateral thinking. Finding a way to fuse the knowledge of science with our spiritual experience(s) of nuclear power. I’ve a website, churchandtrident dot com, that looks along this path. It is work in progress. I lobby the Churches to get involved. In mythic terms, it is their territory. In reality, it needs everyone to look for
    themselves. Look with social curiosity into the Atomic World. See
    that we are working in there as colonists. It’s a typical British
    pattern of behaviour. We’ve been here before. Many times ! Which
    gives us some idea as to how to extricate ourselves, before things
    get out of hand.

  4. DrDavidLowry

    Conservative defence secretary, Michael Fallon, told MPs in a Parliamentary debate on Trident in held on 20 January this year:

    “we also share the vision of a world that is without nuclear weapons, achieved through multilateral disarmament.” (emphasis added) (http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201415/cmhansrd/cm150120/debtext/150120-0001.htm#15012040000001)

    Shortly after, on 6 February, a statement was issued by the Permanent Five (P5) nuclear–armed members of the United Nations Security council (US, UK, Russia, France and China) after a meeting hosted by the Foreign Office in London that :

    the P5 reflected on the contribution that the P5 Process has made in developing the mutual confidence and transparency among the P5 that is essential to make progress towards multilateral nuclear disarmament…The P5 reaffirmed that a step-by-step approach to nuclear disarmament that promotes international stability, peace and undiminished and increased security for all remains the only realistic and practical route to achieving a world without nuclear weapons.”


    More recently, late last month in New York, in her address to the 9th United Nations quinquennial review conference (RevCon) of the 190-member state Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT), when it opened at the UN for a month-long meeting (on 27 April) Foreign Office minister, Baroness Anelay of St Johns, told the conference plenary on Monday27 April :

    “Let me be clear: the UK is here to negotiate in good faith, and we will continue to strive to build the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons. That is why we are making parallel progress on the building blocks for global nuclear disarmament.”

    These words followed those of US President Obama,, who told the NPT RevCon delegates in a message read by US Secretary of State John Kerry also read a message from President Obama to the Conference in which he stressed:

    “We have not yet achieved the ultimate goals enshrined in the Treaty—on this, we all agree—but it is only by seeking common ground and reinforcing shared interests that we will succeed in realizing a world free of nuclear dangers.”

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